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Preview: Michigan State-Indiana

TUESDAY, 7:00 P.M. (ET)
TV: ESPN (Musburger/Lavin)
ENEMY BLOGS: The Crimson Quarry, Inside the Hall


Hoosier bullets:

  • Overall record of 9-15; 3-9 in Big Ten play.
  • Quality(ish) wins: Pittsburgh (neutral), Michigan (home), Minnesota (home), Penn State (away).
  • Close(ish) losses: Illinois (by 6 at home; by 2 on the road), Purdue (by 3 at home).
  • KenPom ranking of #138.  #164 on offense; #123 on defense.
  • Eight Hoosier players are averaging at least 10 minutes per game (excluding the injured Maurice Creek).
  • Indiana's leading scorers (again excluding Creek) are Verdell Jones III at 14.6 points/game and Christian Watford at 12.6 points/game.

While Indiana has clearly improved from the everybody-needed-a-name-tag-at-the-first-practice edition of the team from last year, the improvement has perhaps not been as rapid as Tom Crean, and Indiana fans, would have hoped.  After going 1-17 last season in Big Ten play, the 2010 Hoosiers have won a modest 3 conference games to date this season.

The injury to Maurice Creek just before conference play commenced was a major blow to Indiana's chances of doing any real damage against Big Ten foes.  Creek was doing remarkable things for a freshman asked to take the leading offensive role on a young, inexperienced team (OffRtg of 124.4; Poss% of 25.2).

Nonetheless, the Hoosiers managed to win 3 of their first 6 Big Ten games.  Then they lost by 15 to Iowa at home, and they haven't won since.  Indiana is in the middle of a very tough stretch: 9 consecutive games against the 7 best teams in the league (Wisconsin twice; no Michigan/Penn St./Iowa).  They've lost each of their last 3 games by 17 or more points.

The team's flaws are being highlighted--with a Digger Phelps-edition neon highlighter.  A quick rundown of Indiana's starting lineup paints the picture:

  • Junior transfer point guard Jeremiah Rivers does two point-guard things well--passing and stealing the ball (26.5 assist rate; 2.8 steal rate)--but turns the ball over much too frequently (30.5 TO rate) and can't shoot a lick (.411/.000/.538).
  • Freshman three-point specialist Jordan Hulls sports the team's only (non-Creek) offensive rating north of 100 on .402 three-point shooting but is barely involved in the offense (12.9 Poss%).
  • Sophomore wing Verdell Jones III has taken on Creek's role as the top perimeter scoring threat, but is doing it much, much less efficiently (.432/.271/.730 shooting line).
  • Freshman forward Christian Watford has rebounded the ball adequately (7.7 OReb%, 15.4 DReb%) but can't get good shots around the rim (.406 2pt%).  (Watford is very efficient at the line, though: .813.)
  • Sophomore center Tom Pritchard can put the ball in the basket when he's open (.620 2pt%) and hits the glass on offensive end (8.8 OReb%) but is somehow only the 7th best defensive rebounder on his own team.

Add all that up and you have a team whose collective strengths are few and far between.  On offense, the Hoosiers get to the fairly frequently (led by Jones, Watford, and Rivers) and they make a reasonable percentage of their threes (.353), although they don't take that many of them.  On defense, they force a decent amount of turnovers (21.9%) and they don't give up a lot of great 3-point looks (.328).

Beyond that, this is a team that really needs almost everything to go just right to even have a chance to be in games in the final minutes.  After hanging with Illinois and Purdue for most of 40 minutes, that hasn't come close to happening in the last three games.

Last year's near-catastrophe-but-ultimately-conference-title-clinching win in Bloomington serves as a cautionary tale for the Spartans against taking this game too lightly, but this game really should be a relatively easy MSU win.  KenPom predicts them to win by 9 (75-66 in 69 possessions).  I'd hope the lead would be at least that high by halftime against a team reeling from a streak of blowout losses and struggling with illness.

If MSU brings the kind of intensity and sense of urgency you'd expect at this point, they should dominate the glass on both ends of the court, utilize crisp passing to create good looks around the basket, get to the line often, and force the undermanned Hoosiers into long possessions that end in tough looks at the basket.  Hopefully, Draymond Green and/or Raymar Morgan will be able to get back into a scoring rhythm against the less experienced Watford.  Delvon Roe may be able to get something going against his old high-school teammate Pritchard, as well.

List of things that could go wrong with this seemingly rock solid plan: (1) overzealous defense leading to foul trouble and easy points for IU at the line, (2) Tom Crean's multiple zone looks causing turnovers and/or missed 3-point shots, and (3) a 3-point barrage by the Hoosiers (always a concern against overmatched opponents).

A win sets up a potentially season-defining match-up with Ohio State on Sunday.  There are only seven guaranteed games left for MSU this season.  With the full roster back in action, let's see if Tom Izzo has a team that looks like it's on the upswing as it heads toward one-and-done time.